Iraqi rapper gives voice to anger, disillusionment in Basra

The Iraqi city of Basra, which erupted in demonstrations last summer over failing services and unsafe drinking water, has found an artistic outlet in rapper Ahmed Chayeb. He says his generation is fed up with the politicians and religious authorities who have let Basra fall apart.

Nabil al-Jurani
Rapper Ahmed Chayeb, also known as Mr. Guti, records on his computer, at his home in the southern port city of Basra, Iraq, on Feb. 12, 2019. Mr. Chayeb raps about growing disillusionment with the local politicians and religious authorities in his hometown.

A youth-led protest movement in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, which saw riots last summer over failing services and soaring unemployment, has found an artistic outlet in the words and beats of homegrown rapper Ahmed Chayeb.

The 22-year-old rapper, also known as Mr. Guti, says his generation is fed up with the false piety of politicians and religious authorities who preach about faith and duty but have let Basra fall apart.

"We need to be critical of everything that's not right," Mr. Chayeb told The Associated Press in a recent interview in his home studio, where he recorded "This is Basra," lashing out at the powerful Shiite religious establishment.

Mr. Guti's expertly produced music videos have drawn tens of thousands of YouTube viewers but his new-found fame has also brought danger: Threats from hard-liners are common and two of the city's protest organizers have been killed in recent attacks. Their killers remain at large.

Basra, long known around the Persian Gulf for its drinking establishments and its maritime vibe, fell under conservative rule after Shiite clerics and militias took over the city in the vacuum caused by the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq.

Once renowned for its canals and markets, Basra's waterways today are clogged with waste, and its drinking water is filthy. The city erupted in violent unrest last summer that led to demonstrators burning down government and party-affiliated buildings.

Amid the revolt, rap offered Basra's youth – tired of joblessness and failed services – an opportunity for lyrics blistering with criticism.

In "This is Basra," Chayeb raps against the backdrop of a march around the city's burning municipal building during last summer's protests, asking why his generation has been called on to fight a war for leaders who cannot secure water for the city.

The conflict he refers to is the four-year war against the Islamic State group that the US-backed Iraqi government forces ultimately won. Many young Shiites followed a call in June 2014 by Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for volunteers to fight against ISIS. Thousands died in that fight.

"We were martyred for this war, I fell, and the authority has forgotten my loyalty," he raps.

"You're not associated with Hussein," he goes on, invoking the revered Shiite imam and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who died in the 7th century Battle of Karbala, and whose example Iraq's leaders have asked their youth to follow.

Chayeb, mindful of the dangers, is circumspect about where and when he performs. He says most of his concerts are arranged through private contacts; he stopped recording at a professional studio in 2016. He said he's received death threats that have grown more intimidating in recent months.

But he won't stop rapping.

"If we stay afraid, nothing will change," he said.

As a teenager, Chayeb watched US and British rappers on YouTube, then got together with friends to perform his own rhymes. He also followed a string of Arab rappers and sees Klash, from the Saudi city of Jiddah, as one of his greatest influences.

"My aim is to explain what is happening to Basra because of the people who are corrupt," he said, adding that rap is a way "to release my pain."

Corrupt politicians and clerics should watch out, he says.

"Beware of Basra," he raps. "We won't be quiet until our demands are met."

This story was reported by The Associated Press with Qassim Abdul-Zahra reporting from Baghdad.

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